As an international relations buff, one of my pet peeves is when people can’t tell the difference between China and Japan. They have close links and many cultural similarities. Japan owes much of its civilization to Chinese influence. Chinese and Japanese people superficially look similar. There are other cultures that get confused often, like Spain and Mexico or Ireland and Scotland. But I still find the confusion hard to forgive. Anyone with at least a little knowledge of international affairs should be able to tell the difference between these 2 countries, since there are many, and fundamental ones too. China and Japan were never the same country and developed in isolation for most of their history. Their cultures are very different. It would be like confusing Russia with Britain — but I honestly feel that the difference is even greater.

Someday I may write a blog post on the many factors that distinguish China from Japan, but for now I’ll focus on one aspect that’s often misunderstood: language. Language is probably the easiest and fastest way to tell where something is from (written language in particular). It’s also something that’s rarely well understood by those who don’t try to actually learn the language, since languages are so complicated. In addition, language is considered a core element of culture, indeed one of its fundamentals, and a basic way of dividing them.

Does Japan use Chinese characters? Yes. This is a common source of confusion and probably one of the main reasons China and Japan are so often confused with each other. The details, of course, are a little complicated, so I’ll explain.

Chinese characters are logograms, meaning that each one represents a different concept (like “honor”) or thing (like “wall”). They are famous (or notorious) worldwide for their complexity and distinctiveness. In fact, they’re the only logograms that are still used (aside from some minor languages that use Chinese-derived script). While Chinese characters represent things, they also have pronunciations, since those things have their own pronunciations. Confusingly, the pronunciation often changes depending on the context; you have to learn which one to use based on the context. Many Chinese characters look abstractly like the things they represent (like 川, “river,” or 心, “heart”), but most are too complex for that; instead, a typical formula is to use one element (a “radical”) that represents the concept, and another element that gives a clue about the pronunciation. For instance, 腕 (“arm”) contains the “moon” radical (月), mostly used for body parts, and the radical 宛, which shows you that it’s pronounced wan. And just to make it more confusing, the thing Chinese characters represent also changes depending on context; so 明 can mean “clear,” “bright” or “understand.”

China, as the fount of culture in East Asia, spread its writing system to other countries; this included Japan. But the Japanese language is very different from Chinese. Not all of it can be expressed through Chinese characters. As a result, the Japanese developed their own writing systems, hiragana and katakana, to represent these words. Both hiragana and katakana (together called kana) are syllabaries, meaning that each character represents a syllable (so Japanese is thought of as made up of syllables rather than letters). Hiragana looks like this:


And katakana looks like this:


Both were originally derived from Chinese characters, but katakana is a more direct borrowing, as you might be able to tell from the blocky, straight lines. (Some of them, in fact, are just unusually simple Chinese characters.) Historically, katakana has been used more often, but in a series of post-World War II writing reforms hiragana was installed as the main script for representing basic words.

Does that mean katakana is old-fashioned, or no longer used? Hardly! Katakana is still used all the time in Japanese, but to represent foreign or made-up words, or just to write sounds with no obvious meaning. This means that Japanese, uniquely among languages, uses 3 scripts together. And I don’t mean like Serbo-Croatian or Hindustani, either (those languages can use either of 2 different scripts). In order to read Japanese you have to learn all 3 scripts, since they are used together. Reading any Japanese text will confirm this. Here’s a sample:

レゲエ は、狭義においては1960年代後半ジャマイカで発祥し、1980年代前半まで流行したポピュラー音楽である。

The first word is “reggae,” which is foreign, so it’s written in katakana. Katakana appears again with ジャマイカ (Jamaica) and ポピュラー (popular), both English words (the vast majority of the foreign words incorporated into Japanese are English). The Chinese characters you see express difficult or advanced concepts: 狭義 (narrow sense), 発祥 (originate), 音楽 (music). As for the hiragana, they mostly appear as particles, which are very basic 1 or 2 syllable words like は (is), で (in), まで (until), いつ (when), and so on. The final word, ある (“to be”), is an example of something so basic that it’s not usually written in Chinese characters, as is おいて (as for).

Do you have to use all 3 scripts together? No. The two kana sentence examples above prove that. But to Japanese, they look awkward. The hiragana example would almost always be written with several Chinese characters to express advanced concepts. The katakana example is a strained attempt to use cheesy English adjectives to describe a dress (called “one-piece” in Japanese, hence written in katakana). It is certainly possible to stick to kana only (or even just hiragana, if you can manage the difficult task of avoiding foreign loanwords), but in almost any situation, Japanese just don’t do it. (The main exception I can think of are children’s books, since kids can’t read Chinese characters yet.) Foreigners might pull their hair out and gnash their teeth at the prospect of memorizing thousands of Chinese characters that are much more complicated than the kana they could be written as instead, but Japanese don’t care. It is The Way Things Are Done, and many, many hours of elementary school education are devoted to drawing Chinese characters to drill their use into kids’ brains.

Why does Japanese use Chinese characters still? It’s a difficult subject that’s a little too complicated for this blog post, but suffice it to say that it can be easier to read (provided you know the characters) and immediately understand the concepts. The hiragana example sentence above looks like a blur to Japanese speakers; the Chinese characters separate concepts and words more. Japanese contains lots of words that sound the same, but using Chinese characters makes it obvious which meaning is meant. There are lots of opportunities for wordplay that would die if Chinese characters were phased out. And, probably most fundamentally of all, the Japanese are used to it and are uncomfortable with such a drastic change.

While Japan uses Chinese characters, there is a distinction between the Chinese characters used in China (hanzi) and the ones used in Japan (kanji). Kanji were simplified in the aforementioned postwar writing reforms, mostly using shortcut versions common in China. As a result, kanji aren’t quite the same as hanzi. Here are some examples of differences:

Simplified Chinese Traditional Chinese Japanese

But that’s not all! As you can see in the table above, there is a distinction between Simplified Chinese characters and Traditional Chinese characters as well. China simplified its characters in the 1950s as a compromise between just switching to the alphabet and grappling with tens of thousands of complicated characters. Other Chinese-speaking countries (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore), overseas Chinese communities, and Korea and Vietnam continue to use Traditional characters. The difference between these characters can be quite drastic, as seen here.

Simplified Traditional

So effectively, there are 3 different kinds of Chinese characters: Simplified, Traditional, and Japanese (kanji). Where do the Japanese variants fall? If you’re interested in learning Chinese characters but aren’t sure which type to choose, I recommend Japanese, actually, since they fall roughly midway between Simplified and Traditional in terms of complexity. They lean Traditional, however; kanji readers have an easier time negotiating Taiwan than China. Those who don’t care about Japanese and just want to learn Chinese usually opt for Simplified given how much more important China is than other Chinese countries. (This wasn’t always the case, though: during Communist rule, China was so closed-off from the outside world that foreigners got more use out of learning Traditional.) The downside is that deciphering Traditional characters is much harder for Simplified-readers than vice versa. In any case, Traditional characters are still sometimes used in China, and anything from before the 1950s obviously uses them, so most students of Chinese pretty much have to learn them both at some point or to a certain extent.

Can Chinese-speakers read Japanese (and vice versa)? Sort of. Since they’re all basically the same characters, Chinese and Japanese can read many of each other’s texts. Simplified characters are hardest for Japanese to decipher. Snatches of phrases, or scattered words or concepts, are decipherable or the same. But entire sentences are hard to figure out. Japanese uses kana, which Chinese don’t know or use; meanwhile, Chinese uses a bunch of characters that Japanese doesn’t (because it substitutes kana for them). Some words are also expressed with different characters in the different languages; the classic example here is 手纸/手紙 (“hand paper”), which means “toilet paper” in Chinese and “letter” in Japanese. Basically, Chinese and Japanese can read parts of each other’s writing, but nowhere near enough to make out long passages.

Besides, even if they could read each other’s languages, they wouldn’t be able to speak them… which brings us to the spoken part of Chinese and Japanese.

This is what spoken Chinese sounds like:

As you can tell, it’s a tonal language. That means vocal tones go up and down while speaking. Each word must be expressed with the right combination of tones to convey the meaning properly. Chinese also contains sounds like dung, huang, sher, bien, chiao, fuhng, and shwei. Examples of Chinese names include Xu Jinglei, Hou Xiaochun, Li Ying, Zhou Nong, and Wang Renmei — in other words, they’re short and usually follow a 1-2 syllable combo. Chinese place-names look like Cao Hai, Xiexing, Ningxia, Yangming Shan, and Qingdao. (Note that they aren’t necessarily pronounced that way. Explaining how Chinese is pronounced is a little off-topic, but for example, “c” is like ts, “x” is like ksh, and “q” is like ch.)

On the other hand, spoken Japanese sounds like this:

Completely different, right? It’s not tonal — vocal tones are consistent and smooth. Japanese generally is more flowing than Chinese, which is choppy. The language also sounds very different; it is very vowel-heavy, and the vowels are the 5 basic ones (a, i, u, e, o). Consonants are also pretty simple, and syllables come in basic combinations (ka, tsu, shi, no, me — nothing like shlang or crap). Examples of Japanese names include Tsutomu Okumoto, Hiroko Kitahashi, Nobuo Okunoki, Fumiko Uchida, and Kenji Shimizu — they’re longer than Chinese (and there are also many more of them). Japanese place-names look like Kyouto, Saitama, Fukuoka, Biwa-ko, and Shikoku. They are easy to pronounce; it was not difficult to figure out how to romanize Japanese (that is, render it in the Roman alphabet).

Despite many similarities in Chinese and Japanese cultures, the languages actually have different roots. Japanese is unrelated to Chinese. In fact, it’s unclear what other languages Japanese is related to (well, probably Korean). It’s even unclear where Japanese people originally came from. The most likely explanation is somewhere in Siberia, leading some scholars to claim linguistic similarities with obscure Siberian peoples and even the Finns (who are way, way, way far away on the other side of Russia).

That being said, there are similarities between spoken Chinese and Japanese too. Japanese imported a lot of Chinese vocabulary along with its characters, and like French vocabulary in English, these words now fill up the Japanese dictionary and make up the bulk of Japanese words. Many of them sound fairly different, however. Here are some examples:

(Mandarin) Chinese Japanese English
gānbēi kanpai Cheers!
(pronounced “ssuh”) shi four
dìguó teikoku empire
ānquán anzen safety

Note that this flow wasn’t just 1-way, either: after Japan’s epochal Meiji Revolution, when it opened up to European influences and modernized, China adopted a bunch of words for “modern” concepts like “revolution” (Japanese: kakumei; Chinese: geming) and “telephone” (Japanese: denwa; Chinese: dianhua) from Japanese.

Does all this seem confusing to you? In fact, there are a few factors I still haven’t considered. 1 is other Chinese languages. You see, the language commonly known as “Chinese” is actually Mandarin, the official and dominant Chinese language. But there are others, like Wu, Cantonese and Xiang, and they have their own sounds while sharing the Chinese characters. It’s hard for foreigners to tell from the characters whether the language is Mandarin or something else. And then there’s Korean, which sounds sort of like Japanese but has sounds and a cadence all its own. It stands out clearly from its neighbor languages with its distinctive writing system, hangeul, full of circles and short lines.

But I think those are too much for this blog post. You shouldn’t have to be an expert to tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese. Remember these basic facts:

  • Spoken Chinese is tonal and choppy and uses comparatively short names.
  • Spoken Japanese is not tonal and flows and uses simpler sounds than Chinese and comparatively long names.
  • Written Chinese uses complex characters. If they’re more simple, they’re from China; if they’re more complex, they’re from somewhere else (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, etc.).
  • Written Japanese uses both Chinese characters and simpler kana symbols together.

Yes, there are ways of telling from the specific Chinese characters used, but for ordinary people this is probably asking too much. Thank you for reading, and good luck!




Akihabara, the mecca for anime and manga fans everywhere. Image source: 4chan

Japan has a rich, elegant and subtle culture. It’s famous around the world for its architecture, its warrior code, the tea ceremony and kabuki theater. …. But in modern times, it’s as or more likely to be associated with technology and electronics than its traditional culture, and the new face of Japan, for good or for ill, is its cartoons: anime and manga. They have a somewhat negative reputation, and it’s not entirely undeserved, but they’ve been around for such a long time, and span so many works and genres, that it’s mostly unfair to stigmatize them.

Anime and manga have developed a strong, passionate, and very nerdy fanbase, but they remain obscure and strange to most people. Since this blog is all about examining foreign lands and explaining them to outsiders, I present to you my overview of Japan’s cartoon industry.

Note: This article mostly covers anime because it’s a smaller and less complex subject, but much of what it says can also apply to manga.

Cartoons in Japan actually have very deep roots. Long before modernization, artwork thrived in Japan; some of it, especially drawn on scrolls, told a story that advanced from picture to picture. By the early 1900s, this evolved into both comic strips (manga in Japanese) and animation (called “anime” for short in Japan).

The very first anime, from 1907. The characters say “moving pictures.”

Comics and animation developed more or less parallel to their counterparts overseas, but at first Japan lagged noticeably behind, as it was a much poorer country than its competitors in the West. It produced its own cartoon movies during World War II, but they were in black-and-white, lacked coherent stories, and had more stilted and cheap animation than anything Disney came up with. Japan failed to produce any internationally successful characters; imports like Mickey Mouse and Popeye were more popular, despite government discouragement. Comics fared a little better, since they were easier to make, but were still creaky and basic.

Japanese cartoons improved dramatically after the war, partly due to a more liberal creative atmosphere after the fanatical military dictatorship was disbanded. The single most important figure here — and in basically all of anime and manga history — is Osamu Tezuka. Tezuka was a medical student who grew up idolizing Disney cartoons (especially Bambi) and added cartooning to his career. His comics were much livelier, more dynamic, and more interesting than any of the competition. He opened up new genres that wowed audiences used to cheesy gag-filled stories: action-adventure, science-fiction, fantasy, and historical drama. Tezuka is especially amazing because he created Japan’s first iconic, marketable characters (Astro Boy, a flying robot hero boy; Kimba the White Lion, a young King of the Jungle with the difficult task of bringing predators and prey together; Black Jack, an incredibly skilled surgeon) as well as crafting intricate, philosophical dramas with well-written characters and a cinematic sense of style. And he drew over 700 volumes of comics in his lifetime. Aand he created Japan’s modern animation industry along with its modern comics too, with animated adaptations of his most popular works. It’s hard to pick which aspect of Tezuka is most amazing.

Following Tezuka’s lead (as well as some improved cartoon movies in the 1950s, like Legend of the White Serpent), manga and anime finally took off in the ’60s and ’70s. Cute cartoon characters like Anpanman and Doraemon captivated little kids. Other creators made bigger, more exciting robots than Tezuka’s Astro Boy, until they were skyscraper-sized and battling giant monsters while being piloted by teenagers. The energy and dynamism that exemplified that heady era was channeled into sports sagas about aspiring athletes that trained every day in brutal conditions to hone their craft to its utmost potential. Unusually for its time, the manga industry discovered the power of female consumers, and produced stories of romance, growing up, and the social anxieties of puberty for girl readers. Space sagas like Space Battleship Yamato and Captain Harlock presented an image of masculinity and bravery that appealed to a Japan that had lost a big war but was determined not to lose its vim and vigor.

This is today a bygone era with a very narrow fanbase, and it’s easy to see why. The animation was usually still pretty bad (especially in the ’60s); anime studios cut corners wherever they could, resulting in limited animation and lots of recycled footage. The art was basic and less differentiated from Western cartoons than it is today. Storylines could be glacially slow and relied on melodrama. But they made Japan a cultural force to be reckoned with, as many of the less culturally specific anime were exported to West Asia, Europe, and Latin America.

This fun video shows the exuberance (and emerging nerdiness) of anime in the early ’80s. Don’t worry too much about what it all means, though.

Despite some porno and a few edgy movies like Belladonna of Sadness, most anime was still more or less kids’ fare, though. This changed in the ’80s, when movies like Akira came out. Disturbing, energetic, lavishly drawn and animated, and with a futuristic, cynical edge, it spoke to a foreign audience that had long lazily assumed that animation was for kids. Anime started getting edgier, more violent, and more sexually explicit. It also started working with more sophisticated plots and themes and getting more stylized. Although it was much more niche back then, an open-minded, international fanbase began to take notice of a country that was going in interesting directions with its cartoons — and all without losing sense of the fun that most people associate with cartoons.

In the ’90s, anime finally went mainstream (at least to an extent). Sailor Moon combined the tropes of girls’ romances with those of transforming action hero stories, striking gold worldwide. Dragon Ball gradually spread overseas, enchanting boys with its muscular, super-powered fight scenes, science-fiction trappings, and goofy, unique sense of humor. Most importantly, the end of the decade saw Pokemon, an international monolith that combined a wildly popular video game series with trading cards and an anime. For a few years around the turn of the millennium, I remember Pokemon being more popular among kids than anything else — surely this must count as one of Japan’s greatest triumphs.

Knights of Ramune

Knights of Ramune, an especially exaggerated example of ’90s anime art style. Image source: Maybe Later

While anime hasn’t ever quite reattained the peak in popularity that Pokemon reached, it’s still very popular worldwide, bolstered by a newfound interest in manga, which was seldom exported last millennium. The formula of long-running TV shows with an action theme and plucky, likeable heroes continues, winning audiences for shows like One Piece and Naruto. The more popular shows with mass appeal get picked up for TV. But the vast majority of anime is now a niche pursuit, watched (legally or otherwise) online or through DVDs sold online. Much of it requires a knowledge of Japanese culture and some sort of familiarity with anime style to really appreciate. Most of it is also made mostly for Japanese audiences, which means there are references that will go over foreigners’ heads (especially kids’ heads).

Although there is plenty of anime for younger kids and some for adults, anime mostly aims for teenagers now. This means lots of teenage protagonists (even when this would be really implausible), lots of settings in junior high and high school, and a preoccupation with romance and interactions with the opposite sex. It has also led to the development of a big nerd fanbase. Anime fans, called otaku (“house,” because that’s where they spend all their time), have a reputation, especially in Japan, for being very hardcore in their hobby. They buy figurines and wall scrolls of their favorite characters, listen to anime soundtracks, draw fanfiction expanding on their favorite stories, and dress up (“cosplay”) as anime characters. This has led to a closet industry of anime-related merchandise; while mostly underground, it is visible in Japan in the Toukyou district of Akihabara (pictured above) and the Oosaka district of Den-Den Town, both of which used to be electronics-oriented. Voice actors have cult followings. Comiket, a twice-a-year gathering of fan artists, attracts around half a million visitors.

As a result of pandering to teenage tastes and cultivating such a nerdy fanbase, anime has taken on a rather sleazy edge. Ever since the ’60s, porno, or at least sexually explicit anime, has been part of the medium. This is still underground (or rather, behind the curtains) in Japan, but a lot of anime runs on “fanservice,” which are elements included just to titillate fans. Girls wear short skirts; the “camera” lingers on long legs and boobs; guys keep walking in on girls when they just happen to be naked; stories find more and more excuses for girls to get naked. In recent years, there’s been a trend towards eliminating male characters completely, since the target audience doesn’t care about them. Since the sketchy days of the ’70s, anime art has evolved toward subtly sexualizing characters; it now strikes a sweet spot, where characters look just realistic enough to be sexy but just cartoony enough to be relatable. Some of that anime merchandise, like body-length pillows of cute, half-undressed girls, encourages otaku to get turned on by anime girls.

This would be why anime now has a bad reputation, and it’s hard to deny that it doesn’t get a little creepy sometimes. Arguably the worst part is that Japan’s obsession with cuteness leads the ideal to tread a narrow line between cute and sexy; a lot of anime fans topple over that line and start fetishizing little girls. (Even back in the ’70s, A LOT of those family-friendly shows focused on little girls, and the UN has frequently criticized Japan for having too much child porn.) But it would be wrong and a jump to conclusions to assume that anime fans are necessarily creeps and perverts. A lot of anime is straightforward and even family-friendly by some Western standards; the fanservice is mostly there to nudge and wink the more horny fans (who also spend the most money on the industry). Sexually explicit scenes are also pretty rare in anime; anime and manga set in high school tend to be pretty chaste and rely more on hints and sexual tension than on outright hanky-panky. Finally, it’s worth pointing out that anime has plenty of female fans, and there’s almost as much fanservice to appease them as there is to appease men.


The recent anime Shirobako, a mostly realistic behind-the-scenes look at the animation industry itself, is also a good example of how cute girls (technically young women in this case) have practically taken over the medium. Image source: Shirobako official site

It’s also important to remember that anime spans a dizzying array of genres. Action and romance remain prevalent, but anime now dabbles in mystery, horror, political drama, wacky comedy, satire, workplace stories, lazy slice-of-life tales, cute girls just doing cute things, and weird combinations of some of the above. In general there’s a preference for “speculative fiction” that involves the supernatural and magical powers, partly because the target audience likes that and partly because animation lends itself to that, but these days anime can pretty much be about anything — even fighting bad guys with nose hair or a bibliophile reincarnated as a dog kept by a sadistic, scissors-wielding writer. And that’s not even counting manga, a much richer, more prolific field with subjects ranging from mahjong to office ladies drinking beer together.

Anime and manga are easily most popular in their homeland, but they have also achieved popularity across East Asia, especially in South Korea and Taiwan (which has a small version of Akihabara in its capital city). Elsewhere, they are still mostly cult phenomena, popular mainly among comic book nerds and kids (or those who haven’t completely grown up). Some anime from the ’60s to the ’80s are more popular in Latin America, Europe and/or West Asia than Japan. North America is probably the non-Asian market of most interest to the anime industry; its conventions attract thousands of fans and are the closest things otaku there have to Akihabara (a place where they can mingle with like-minded fans and buy anime-related merchandise).

One exception to the underground popularity of anime (besides the big kids’ shows mentioned earlier) is Studio Ghibli. Often described as Japan’s answer to Disney, this is the studio that puts the most effort and care into its craft, producing movies usually considered “magical” and “enchanting.” With a simple but appealing art style that’s remained mostly the same since the ’80s, a love of the fantastic, mostly wholesome stories, superb animation and a feminist, environmentalist and pacifist tilt, it’s gradually gained the appreciation of snootier cinephiles around the world. Like Disney, it mostly aims at kids, but its stories contain enough depth and sincerity to win over lots of adults too. Unfortunately, it’s been heavily dependent on 2 artists, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, both of whom have retired. Its future is now uncertain.

Anime can be sleazy and creepy. Sometimes it’s stupid and blatantly commercialized. After over 50 years, it recycles a lot of its most successful stories and tropes. Of course, its famous art style gets it a lot of hatred. But love it or hate it, anime and manga have become two of Japan’s most recognizable symbols and part of the national identity. Even if most Japanese don’t watch anime, they’ll still remember favorite characters or shows from their childhood, and cartoon characters are ubiquitous in the country. If nothing else, it gives the country a cute and/or cool image that does a lot to compensate for its sometimes harsh and soulless reputation.

If you’re interested in learning more about anime and manga, check out the website I work for, Anime News Network. If you’d like to sample a few classics and don’t know where to start, here are my tips.


Yaaaaay! Everybody happy, happy, happy! Image source: China Digital Times

Yaaaaay! Everybody happy, happy, happy! Image source: China Digital Times

This weekend marks the 70th anniversary of one of history’s biggest turning points: V-J Day, or the end of World War II. On that day, the Japanese Emperor, his country ravaged by bombs, his navy on the Pacific Ocean floor and his army in full retreat, surrendered. It marked the implosion of the Japanese Empire, the political force that had dominated East Asia for half a century, and the beginning of an era dominated by China. It is a time well-remembered by Chinese and Japanese today, despite how long ago it was, and the memories they have are bitter and not easily healed. In fact, seven decades later, China and Japan are once more enemies.

So it seems apt to return to my ongoing series on China’s relations with other countries. This week, I look at its relationship with Japan, a country with which it has a long, complicated, but mostly antagonistic story.

As I explained in my first post on China, China is the center of civilization in East Asia. Japan only appears in the historical record in the first millennium, thousands of years after China, and as a vassal kingdom across the sea. Early Japan imbibed a lot of cultural influence from China: Japan uses Chinese characters (and also some of its own, derived from Chinese characters; it’s complicated); Japanese art, architecture and poetry primarily followed the Chinese model; the early Japanese empire modeled its administrative system and law code after China’s; the medieval Japanese capitals of Nara and Kyouto followed Chinese urban guidelines; Buddhism, although imported via Korea, was heavily influenced by Chinese practices; Confucianism, China’s main social philosophy, was adopted; even traditional Japanese clothing is based on medieval Chinese clothing.

Much of this cultural borrowing dates from the Tang Dynasty, however, which was at its height in the 6 and 700s. By the 800s, the dynasty was clearly in decline, and Japan smugly decided it had nothing more to learn from China. Japan turned inward, and slowly began to develop its own distinctive civilization, heavily influenced by China’s but with its own characteristics (like samurai). China and Japan continued trading with each other and carrying on pirate raids on each other, but for most of the second millennium they avoided each other. (Two big exceptions were the Mongol invasions of the 1200s, which failed to conquer Japan, and a Japanese invasion of Korea in the 1500s, which failed to conquer China.) By the 1600s, both countries had closed up and sealed their borders, convinced that the outside world was boring and threatening.

This changed in 1853, when Japan was forced open by Matthew Perry and the US. Realizing how strong and technologically advanced the West was — and seeing how it had ravaged China earlier — Japan resolved to completely change its governing strategy and do whatever it needed to catch up with the West. It succeeded spectacularly: by the 1890s Japan had a modern education system, army, navy, industrial base, and railway system, and valued Western ideas, science and technology.

Meanwhile, China remained committed to its old ways and made no serious change to its imperial system. It had no real idea how to deal with the foreigners exploiting its coastal cities. Plenty of Chinese reformers, frustrated with how sclerotic the Manchu* court was, looked to Japan as a model for modernization and advancement. Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Republic of China, lived in Japan for a few years and got help from Japanese eager to cause trouble in China (or, uh, advance Chinese reform). Lu Xun, the most prominent Chinese writer in the early 1900s, studied in Japan. The Chinese reformist scholar Liang Qichao lived in Japan for 14 years and argued that Japan’s hybrid Western-imperial Japanese government system showed that China could reform without overthrowing the Manchus. Most Western terminology that entered China in this period did so via Japanese translations. Suddenly Japan was the teacher and not the pupil.

Chinese awe of Japan’s prowess was tempered with foreboding, though. By 1894 (41 years after Perry’s visit!), Japan had strengthened enough so that it had nothing to fear from the West and so that it could start beating up other Asians. It went to war with China, and despite its far smaller size (about 40 million vs. 400 million) and army (240,000 vs. 630,000), its superior technology, canny tactics, and disciplined army let it thrash China’s weaker army and navy. As a result, Japan won Taiwan and China lost its influence in Korea. The superiority of Japan’s model was made evident — as was Japan’s growing ambition and aggression.

Japanese imperialism only increased in the 1900s. It sent an army to Beijing to help suppress an anti-foreigner uprising in 1900. A war with Russia secured Japanese control of Korea, the Liaodong Peninsula (on the Chinese coast near Beijing), and Japanese influence over Manchuria (northeast China). Japan entered World War I to scoop up the German colony of Shandong, another peninsula on the Chinese coast near Beijing. During the war Japan imposed 21 demands on China that extended its control over the Chinese economy and parts of Chinese territory. Japan was clearly caught up in a predatory relationship with China, lured in by its vast natural resources, economic potential, and a leadership vacuum brought on by the collapse of the Chinese Empire in 1912. During the 1920s, Japanese imperialism eased up and Shandong was returned to China during a brief brightening of relations called the Taishou Era, but the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 and civil war in China led to renewed imperialism. In 1931 the Japanese army created a puppet state in Manchuria; in 1932 Japan bombed Shanghai. Japanese encroachment in China far overshadowed anything the West had done.

In 1937 the gathering storm finally broke. A clash between the Chinese and Japanese armies outside of Beijing escalated into a full-scale war. Japanese armies poured south from Manchuria, easily pushing back the disorganized Chinese. Nanjing, China’s capital at the time, fell within 5 months and was subjected to one of history’s most brutal pillages ever. Japanese soldiers ransacked the city with little restraint from their commanders (and even active encouragement). Tens of thousands were raped; 300,000 were murdered, often in mass executions outside the city but sometimes in wanton slaughter house by house. This so-called “Rape of Nanjing” has come to symbolize Japanese barbarity, but it was only one of a series of massacres and episodes of mistreatment that characterized the war. Chinese cities were bombed and its civilians strafed from the air. Soldiers set fire to farmers’ fields and razed villages. Women were conscripted as sex slaves and gang-raped on a daily basis. A sinister army unit in Manchuria conducted biological weapons experiments on Chinese prisoners. With the Japanese army increasingly bogged down in China’s vastness, it resorted to cruelty and mercilessness on a massive scale to wipe out as many Chinese as possible and bring the country to its knees. It was a horrific counterpart to the similarly total war raging in the Soviet Union at the time, and it cost China 20 million deaths and about 100 million refugees.

But, obviously, Japan failed. Even its crack troops, fearsome airplanes, and brutally efficient administration couldn’t subdue China. Harassed by guerrilla attacks and bogged down in its other campaigns in Asia and the Pacific, the Japanese army collapsed in 1945 and withdrew. Japan’s martial ambitions had swelled by 1940 to envision domination of all of East Asia and becoming a true world power, but by 1945 it was left with only its home archipelago.

In the postwar years, China and Japan both underwent major transformations. Japan was occupied by America and remolded into a democratic, pro-Western state with a sharply reduced military and dependent on the U.S. China unfortunately went through a few more years of war before consolidating into a monolithic Communist regime. Japan, which had developed by adopting the Western model (with some modifications of course), was anti-Communist (it was one of the reasons it invaded China, supposedly), and besides, as a new client of the U.S. its foreign policy independence was reduced. China and Japan were on opposite sides of the Cold War and shunned each other. Yet relations were not as antagonistic as they were between China and America; Japan’s new model was an export-driven economy, and China was still the biggest potential market and source of natural resources. Japanese businessmen hoped for a less strict policy towards China.

In 1972, America and China finally reestablished diplomatic relations, and although Japan was irked that it hadn’t been consulted, it quickly fell into line. Its prime minister, Kakuei Tanaka, visited Beijing (again China’s capital). Economic ties were established once again, although more between equals this time. Deng Xiaoping, China’s chairman, visited Toukyou in 1978 to sign a treaty putting the grievances of the war to rest. He hugged Japan’s prime minister and wrote in a guestbook that “we learn from and pay respect to the Japanese people, who are great, diligent, brave and intelligent.” The complementary nature of the Chinese economy — resource rich with a huge labor pool — and the Japanese economy — resource poor with lousy demographics but expertise in technology, science and modern enterprises — led once again to close partnerships between Japanese and Chinese companies, especially when Deng loosened restrictions on private enterprise.

But the ghosts of the war never really went away either. The calamity had traumatized China, and it had never really forgiven Japan. The issue began to fester in the 1980s, when Japanese politicians began to take visits to Yasukuni Shrine, a war memorial in Toukyou that enshrines the memories of the valiant soldiers who gave their lives for the emperor. It also enshrines war criminals and the generals who pushed Japan into the war. These aren’t simple visits, either: In Japanese religion, dead soldiers are revered as gods, and the politicians worship them. China considered it an insult, and it certainly served to keep the memory of the war alive.

If it feels like I’ve dwelt too long on history, that’s because history overshadows the Sino-Japanese relationship. Despite the close economic and cultural ties between China and Japan (which are also informed by history, of course), it’s the war and the record of Japanese imperialism that most dominate the relationship. It has taken center stage in recent times because of 2 developments: one in China, one in Japan.

In China, Communism has fallen by the wayside. Although it is still ruled by the Communist Party, Chinese society is more informed by capitalism and globalization now than by old Communist ideologies. This means the government needs a new ideological prop for its rule; just “making money” seems a little hollow. It has turned to nationalism (a strategy I excoriated in an earlier post), hoping that stimulating pride in the country will also buttress its rule. As usual, this nationalism needs an enemy, and China has found it in Japan. (America is too important to anger.) Keeping memories of Japanese wartime atrocities fresh and making sure the young are well-informed of them induces pride in the country and a sense of sorrow and grievance at how China was victimized and humiliated.

In Japan, largely because of China’s rise, the postwar order of relying on America for defense seems more and more shaky. Would America really come to Japan’s aid if it came under attack? To hedge its bets, a big part of the Japanese ruling class is determined to revise Japan’s constitution to let it have a proper military that can contribute to the East Asian security system and deter China. Japan’s current leader, Shinzou Abe, is part of this group. He is also part of a smaller fringe group that looks back on the imperial era with nostalgia, venerating the emperor, missing the dynamic and masculine attitude of Japan back then, and seeing the browbeating attitude the Japanese left has towards Japan’s atrocities as unnecessarily holding the country back. He wants Japan to have a real military and reassert its role as a Great Power in East Asia.

These 2 developments have set China and Japan on a collision course. China wants to make Japan look bad to make itself look better in comparison; Japan wants to be more like it was in the early 1900s. Both have the effect of keeping the war a vital part of both country’s dialogues, and it makes Japan look bad.

The issue is complicated by how shallow ties between the countries are on a deeper level. There is a Chinese minority in Japan and a reasonably big Chinatown in Yokohama, but little understanding of China, especially in its modern form. There is no Japanese minority in China; very, very few Chinese know any Japanese or have ever met them. The languages, despite the shared characters, are very, very different, and from completely different language families in their spoken form. This means both countries have outdated impressions of the other. Japan associates China with old literary classics like Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Journey to the West, cute Chinese girls in qipao and hair buns, and occasionally as stern Maoist officials. China associates Japan with samurai and the shrieking, barbaric murderers of the 1930s (and sometimes as the weirdly contradictory image of passive, effeminate perverts).

Thus, when Japanese officials visit Yasukuni Shrine or say something about the war that it isn’t completely condemnatory, Chinese go berserk. They see a Japan refusing to own up to its past and hell-bent on reviving its empire and military. It gives China an enemy to rally against and an excuse for further military buildup and muscle-flexing. Chinese passions are aroused to the extent that Japanese businesses are boycotted (and even smashed up in the worst cases) and any Japanese they can find are beaten and discriminated against, but China can get away with it: In modern East Asia, with a growing number of technology, finance and innovation hubs, Japan isn’t as important or special as it once was. Meanwhile, in Japan, emotions are much more restrained, but there is a backlash against China as well.

To calm tempers, Japanese prime ministers have issued several apologies on anniversaries of V-J Day. Tomiichi Murayama comprehensively apologized for Japan’s crimes on the 50th anniversary; Shinzou Abe has sort of apologized as well (he upheld previous apologies). These apologies have been diluted by other actions, not the least of which is worshiping at Yasukuni Shrine, which Abe and several of his predecessors and lower-level Japanese politicians have done, but also things like rewriting textbooks to minimize the war and Japanese atrocities in it. Some of Abe’s close associates even deny or doubt some of the horror stories; until recently the Rape of Nanjing wasn’t accepted as fact by many Japanese (and it’s usually just called “the Nanjing Incident”). Abe’s own grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was an administrator in Japanese-occupied Manchuria and Japan’s minister of munitions during the war.

So China screams at Japan to stop bringing up the war, but it actually wants to keep doing it to prop up the government’s legitimacy and keep Chinese in a victim mindset. Japan pleads with China to stop bringing up the war, but the government’s conservative, backward-looking mindset and attempts at a military buildup ensure that Chinese won’t forget about the war anytime soon. China keeps the war alive through numerous historical TV dramas, theme parks, and museum exhibits. Japan minimizes the war in China and sometimes outright denies that its conquest was a war of attrition and bloodshed. It’s an impasse that would be comical if the issues weren’t so serious.

So why not just forget about the war? It was 70 years ago, after all. The trauma of the 1930s and ’40s was overlooked in the decades afterwards, as China and Japan both recognized that good relations were more important than getting hung up over past crimes. Why can’t the war be overlooked now?

This brings us to the second reality — the geopolitical shift in the 3rd millennium. China is no longer a weak, chaotic, helpless country preyed on by foreign devils, but a resurgent, prosperous, unified, ambitious Great Power. Economically, East Asia is in orbit around China. It is the region’s 2nd-strongest military power as well (unless you count America as a foreign power). Japan is no longer an ambitious, unique, imperialist power preying on weaker Asians but a declining, democratic, inward-looking country sheltered by America. Abe isn’t motivated just by nostalgia and machismo, but by concern about China. Japan isn’t a weak country, but it is now overshadowed by a China with similar ambitions and dynamism to Japan’s 100 years ago. Abe is naturally worried about relying so much on America for defense and unsure of China’s intentions.

Image source: Gigazine

Image source: Gigazine

This geopolitical clash is illustrated by another ongoing Sino-Japanese dispute: the Senkaku Islands. These are a few small islands north of Taiwan (who also claims them) that have been under Japanese control since the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895, but are now claimed by China, who calls them the Diaoyus. Chinese fishing boats have been entering the Senkaku area more and more recently (as seen above). When the Japanese government bought them from a private owner in 2012, the dispute roared back into diplomatic consciousness. In 2012 and 2013, Chinese ships entered the waters around the Senkakus and engaged in water cannon battles with the Japanese navy. The dispute has since died down somewhat, but Japan and the world has been put on notice that China reacts to any hint of being taken advantage of strongly.

China and Japan are not predestined to hate each other. Their cultural links are strong. Japanese love Chinese food and traditional Chinese culture; Chinese admire Japanese skill and enterprise and enjoy its pop culture. But they are both self-absorbed and proud peoples, and China in particular sees itself as the rightful master of East Asia, pointing to its long history as the star around which other countries orbited. Japan is seen as an upstart country whose eclipse of China in the late 1800s and early 1900s must never be repeated. Japan is a democratic, capitalist, peace-loving nation beholden to the U.S.; China is an authoritarian nation that rules through force and seeks to challenge the U.S. No matter what the circumstances of how the war and Japanese imperialism are remembered, the two countries are natural enemies.


China was ruled at the time by Manchus, people from the northeast, adding to the distance between China’s emperor and his people.